Sunday, July 24, 2016

Book review - Svetlana Alexievich: Second hand time // Imagine the tragedy of abandoning Communism without knowing how to live with capitalism

Svetlana Alexievich: Second hand time
Reviewed by Timothy Snyder

It is right, but also not quite right, to celebrate the journalist and contemporary historian, Svetlana Alexievich, this year’s laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, as a Belarusian writer. The force of her work, the source of its power and plausibility, is the choice of a generation (her own) as a major subject and the close attention to its major inflection point, which was the end of the Soviet Union. 


She is connected to Russia and Ukraine as well as Belarus and is a writer of all three nations; the passage from Soviet state to national state was experienced by them all, and her life has been divided among them. Her method is the close interrogation of the past through the collection of individual voices; patient in overcoming cliché, attentive to the unexpected, and restrained in the exposition, her writing reaches those far beyond her own experiences and preoccupations, far beyond her generation, and far beyond the lands of the former Soviet Union. Polish has a nice term for this approach, 
literatura faktu, “the literature of fact.” Her central attainment, the recovery of experience from myth, has made her an acute critic of the nostalgic dictatorships in Belarus and Russia.

To say that Alexievich was born in Soviet Ukraine in 1948 is already to indulge in the kind of simplification she has sought to expose from the beginning. Her home city, Stanislaviv, was in a region known as Galicia, which had been part of Poland from the fourteenth century, part of the Habsburg monarchy in the nineteenth, and part of the Second Polish Republic in the 1920s and 1930s. It fell under Soviet rule in 1939 when the Soviet Union invaded Poland following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and then under German power in 1941 when Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. Jews were the largest population in Stanislaviv before the war; almost every single one was murdered in the Holocaust. Many of the city’s Poles and Ukrainians were killed or deported by either the Germans or the Soviets during the war, and others were drafted into service in the Red Army and died in combat. The Stanislaviv where Alexievich spent the first few years of her life was thus a new Soviet city, both in its administration and its population.

Perhaps it mattered that essentially everything about the city of her birth was a suppression but also an invocation of an unremembered past, and that her family was involved on both sides in disputes that could never be fully articulated. Her Belarusian father had fought against Ukrainian nationalists who were trying to win Galicia for an independent Ukraine. Her Ukrainian maternal grandmother told her about what Ukrainians call the “Holodomor,” Stalin’s political famine, which had killed more than three million people in Soviet Ukraine in 1932 and 1933. That was crucial knowledge, because the collectivization of agriculture, whose purported success was a central myth of Soviet history, was one of the causes of the famine. Ukrainians were blamed for the misery and subjected to harsh requisitions and reprisals that channeled starvation on to their territory, whereas Soviet citizens as a whole were told that collectivization was a grand success hindered only by nationalists and saboteurs.

It was collectivization, along with World War II (known as the “Great Fatherland War”), that created the Soviet Union that people of Alexievich’s generation experienced. Both were calamities that were covered in beautiful myths, myths that worked in part because people wanted individual suffering and death to have meaning. Collectivization was said, in retrospect, to have been necessary for victory in war, and victory in war was taken to demonstrate the legitimacy of the system as such. 

Collectivization was the founding stone of a new kind of society, which after the war could be brought to new places such as Stanislaviv. Alexievich’s family moved from Stanislaviv in Soviet Ukraine to the Polesian region of southern Belarus in the 1950s, a land known for the ambiguous national identity of its inhabitants. As a very young woman Alexievich taught school and worked at a local newspaper in these provinces; in the late 1960s, she went to Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus, to study journalism, but returned again to the provinces when she finished, working in Biaroza in the southwest, in another town that had been in Poland before the war. In the meantime, the name of her hometown, Stanislaviv, was changed to the one it still bears now, in independent Ukraine: Ivano-Frankivsk.

Three constitutive elements of the Soviet identity of Alexievich’s generation were movement from one part of the USSR to another, the Russian language that made such movement possible, and the official Soviet nostalgia that slowly replaced Marxist ideology in the 1970s. Leaving Soviet Ukraine for Soviet Belarus, as her family did, would have made an overall Soviet loyalty more plausible than any local one; although neither of her parents was Russian by origin, Russian was the language of the family, and the only language in which Alexievich has published. People of her generation, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin (born in 1952) and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (born in 1954), did not take part in the great transformations and cataclysms of the 1930s and 1940s, but were nourished on the quasi-Marxist idea that all the suffering had a purpose, and the neo-provincial idea that this purpose was the continuation of the exemplary Soviet state in which they happened to have been born. 

When Leonid Brezhnev proclaimed that the Soviet Union exemplified “really existing socialism,” he deprived the future of its utopia, insisted on the adequacy of the present, and thereby located the legitimacy of the system in its past. When we confront, today, the myth of the Great Fatherland War and of Stalin as a good manager, we are hearing not the echoes of the events themselves, but of the memory campaign of the 1970s. The generation that grew up in this era is today in power in Russia and in Belarus—although no longer in Ukraine.

What was unusual about Alexievich as a Soviet journalist in the 1970s and early 1980s, in Biaroza and then in Minsk, is that she sought to halt the Soviet time machine as it switched gears from forward to reverse. What was almost unique was that she found a way to do so: an investigative journalism that began from the assumption that truth was accessible but that its excavation was a matter of hard individual work with an interlocutor who was probably already yielding the past of his or her own life to the collective Soviet story. Her first manuscript, which could not be published, was about the archetypical Soviet experience of leaving the village for the city, the basic form of social advance which also meant, in the Soviet Union as of course everywhere, the exchange of local memories for the rougher tropes of urban life.


In the towns of the western Soviet Union that Alexievich knew best, urban life was not simply a novelty for some, but a novelty for almost everyone, since prewar urban classes had been destroyed by war, Holocaust, and deportation... read more:

Nobel Prize winner (2015) Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets explores what the aftermath of the fall of USSR meant for ordinary folks. Svetlana is a Belarusian journalist who was born in Ukraine, writes in Russian and lived in Paris for nearly 11 years before returning to Minsk to be with her daughter and granddaughter. According to the New York Times, “she had left to protest the regime of the Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and curtailed press freedom. She said she planned to remain in Minsk and hoped the Nobel would give her some protection and freedom to speak her mind.” Based on interviews carried out between 1991 and 2012, the book was published in Russian in 2013, with the first English edition coming out in 2016.... Read more: 

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